Commentary

Points league strategy: Pitchers

Updated: February 17, 2012, 5:15 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Fantasy baseball has been around for a very long time, and as a result, it has evolved and changed as the years have gone by. While the early players of the game all pretty much stuck to the original concept of a category-based comparison of teams known as "rotisserie," there are an increasing number of leagues today that use different methods in order to determine their ultimate champion.

One of the popular offshoot scoring systems is the points league. Instead of owners worrying about drafting players who can provide them with a balanced lineup of steals, home runs, batting average, wins, strikeouts and ERA, each player in a points league gives you one single number each week based on his on-field performance.

That makes a huge difference in the relative value of players, and while many of the superstars of the sport are going to remain at the top of all draft lists regardless of how you play, there are certain factors that do carry a lot more weight in the points format than they would in evaluating players in more traditional formats.

Let's take a look at some of these factors, in terms of how they relate to evaluating pitchers in points leagues:

Pitchers Versus Hitters

In the ESPN standard scoring system, hitters get one point for each total base (a single = 1, double = 2, etc.) as well as for each run scored, stolen base, walk and RBI. In addition, a point is subtracted for each strikeout. In a points-based league, a walk is truly as good as a hit. Under this format, 13 hitters had over 500 points last season, with Jacoby Ellsbury topping the list with 581 points.

As for pitchers, each out a pitcher records is worth one point, with an extra point awarded for each strikeout. Walks and hits dock you a point apiece, while an earned run gives you a two-point deduction. Additionally, for those considering closers, a save is worth five points.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander should continue to pile up the fantasy points, no matter the changes in scoring.

In the past, a win would earn you 10 points while a loss would deduct five points from your score. With this scoring system in place in 2011, 11 pitchers finished the season with a higher score than Ellsbury's. In fact, Justin Verlander's sensational season earned him a whopping 853 points.

That disparity seemed way out of balance and devalued hitters to the point that teams with a quality horde of pitchers were winning their leagues without having to field a competitive lineup. After all, even on a per-week basis, the scales were slanted way too much toward the starting pitcher over the hitter. In a 5x5 rotisserie league, the fact that an ace starter can help you in only four categories, versus five for a stud hitter, is a reason to devalue arms in relation to bats. In a points league, such categorical distinctions are irrelevant.

A pitcher who wins his game while allowing two runs in seven innings is going to give you in the neighborhood of 30 points, with a potential second start later in the week that could easily double that number. Last season, from April 11 through April 17, Troy Tulowitzki had four home runs, eight RBIs and a .606 OBP. By way of comparison, that stellar week, one that most hitters will never approach, was worth "only" 49 points.

That's why for 2012, we've lowered the value of a win to five points in an attempt to level the playing field. A few of aces are still likely to outscore some of the top hitters, but no longer will it be to the point where hitters are rendered moot. In fact, with this scoring change, starting pitchers probably can safely be removed from first-round draft consideration.

Wins and Losses Still Matter

The new "five-point win" changes the game a bit, but in terms of comparing pitchers to each other, it doesn't make that big of an impact. You still want pitchers who have the best chance at winning when they take the mound.

[+] EnlargeIan Kennedy
G Fiume/Getty ImagesIan Kennedy tied for the NL lead with 21 wins in 2011, giving his value in points leagues a huge boost.

Consider the difference between Ian Kennedy and Tim Lincecum in leagues using last year's scoring system, which was a hefty 134 points. Based upon the 15-point swing if a narrow win turned into a loss, or vice versa, nearly all of that gap goes out the window if both of those pitchers had just four games end up with a different result.

Even under the new scoring rules, that gap would still have been 94 points and that same four-result swap would trim 80 points from the final tally for the pair of pitchers.

In fact, swap Ian Kennedy's 3-0 record against the San Francisco Giants for Tim Lincecum's 0-3 record against the Arizona Diamondbacks and you've likely got a very different perception of how the 2011 season went for each pitcher.

That's why you have to give a huge rankings boost to pitchers who will be taking the mound for teams you believe will win a lot of games over those of equal abilities who may be toiling for the league's bottom feeders.

Michael Pineda might not be a "better" pitcher than Felix Hernandez, but if he ends up winning 16 games in New York while Seattle's lack of run support doesn't allow the King to reach .500, then the difference between the former teammates in the final points league standings will surely be negligible.

Quality Equals Quantity

Wins are always a bit of a crapshoot to predict for a starting pitcher because his ability to achieve victory on his own is so limited. However, the pitchers who exhibit the most outings when they do "the most they can" to put their team in a position to win not only do win more often, but also typically earn more fantasy points in the process.

We are talking, of course, about the quality start. A quality start is any game in which the starter goes six or more innings and allows three runs or fewer. Because pitchers earn one point for each out and lose two points for each earned run, we are talking about, at worst, 12 points from a quality start based on workload and runs allowed.

Throw in the probability that a quality start will result more often in low WHIP rates and high strikeout totals, and you have to like the chances of pitchers whose quality starts exceed their win totals to perhaps get "luckier" in 2011 and have their point totals rise due to a better winning percentage in the future.

Here are a few pitchers from last season who finished much higher on the points rank list than their win-loss records would perhaps indicate thanks to consistent quality over the course of the year:

Strikeouts Matter More Than ERA

Points leagues give fireballers a huge leg up on pitchers who lack the stuff to consistently send hitters on a long, solitary walk back to the dugout. Every strikeout a pitcher records is worth two points, one for the out itself plus one for registering the K in the scorebook. That means that each strikeout effectively negates the two-point deduction that comes with allowing an earned run.

As such, you want to keep a close eye on pitchers who have ERAs that rank outside the top 40 in that category but have enough pop on that fastball to counteract those negative numbers. While in a rotisserie league, because each category is taken separately, these pitchers might hurt you as much as they help. But in a points league, having a K/9 rate more than twice that of your ERA only makes your value stronger.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here. You can e-mail him here.